God's Non-Professional Prophet
14 Mar 2009, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
GOD'S NON-PROFESSIONAL PROPHET
The year was 760 BC and Israel was at the zenith of its power. The nation, at this time, was being led by a man called Jeroboam II who was to be the 14th King of Israel. However, in describing this King, the Scriptures in 2 Kings 14: 24 tells us that Jeroboam '… did evil in the sight of the Lord.'
We need to recognise that before him, Jeroboam I, had been largely responsible for leading the people away from God and setting up alternative forms of worship. He had made two calves of gold that bore a very close resemblance to the Canaanite pagan god called Baal. One was erected in the town of Bethel and the other in the town of Dan (Lockyer, 1986: 549). Also opposing God's instructions, Priests were now being selected from other tribes apart from the tribe of Levi. It was this situation, along with the sacrifices being made to these images, that was to see the true worship of Israel gradually decline.
We need to acknowledge that the influence of this act of idolatry was to be felt for generations to come. Eighteen Kings were to sit on the throne of Israel after Jeroboam's death, but not one of them gave up the golden calves (Ibid). Such is the powerful influence that one person and his life can have on another.
In order to understand our story this morning we need to know what brought this terrible situation about?
This takes us back to the time of King Solomon when the kingdom was seen to be outwardly rich, prosperous and thriving. However, we need to note that most of the building projects that had been undertaken during this period were only ever accomplished because of forced labour, high taxes and other extremely oppressive measures. Consequently, there was much discontent and unrest throughout the land.
After King Solomon died, his kingdom was described as being like a powder keg waiting for some small spark to ignite it.
This inevitable explosion was to take place when Solomon's son, by the name of Rehoboam, was to take the throne. It wasn't long after this event, that the man called Jeroboam, who first appears in the biblical record as an '…officer over all the labour force of the house of Joseph (1 Kings 11: 28), returns from Egypt where Solomon had exiled him. He now leads a delegation to Solomon's son where he says in 1 Kings 12: 4 that 'Your father made our yoke heavy, now therefore lighten the burdensome service of your father, and his heavy yoke which he put on us and we will serve.'
Rehoboam's reply, which was believed to be based on the council of his inexperienced companions and confidantes, was now to provide the spark that was to tear the powerful kingdom into two. He said, 'Whereas my father laid a heavy yoke upon you, I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scourges (1Kings 12: 11).
As a result of this foolishness, the ten northern tribes of Israel were to revolt against Rehoboam and appointed Jeroboam as their king. This was to leave the son of Solomon to preside over the southern state of Judah whose people were to remain loyal to the house of David (1 Kings 12: 16-20).
Because Jeroboam was initially concerned that the people of Israel, representing the northern kingdom, may return to the house of David if they continued to journey to Jerusalem for the annual festivals and observances at the temple of Solomon, he instituted the idolatrous worship involving the calves of gold (Lockyer, 1986: 549).
Once committed to this sinful path, Jeroboam's progress was to be all down hill (Ibid). His rebellious and arrogant attitude was to be passed on to Jeroboam II and this was to become the pattern for all the rulers of Israel for generations to come.
It was now to be under Jeroboam II, who ruled for 41 years from 793-753 BC, that Israel's power reached its height and while this was said to be Israel's 'Indian summer of prosperity and influence', underneath, the nation was seen to be rotten to the core (Alexander, 1999: 490).
As a result of this prosperity, there was an increase in the number of wealthy people who lived in luxury and self-indulgence. Their ease and extravagance was to be contrasted with the suffering and misery of the poor.
Amos 2: 7 says that they 'pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek…'
Listen carefully to what was happening
Cities were growing rapidly at the expense of the rural countryside. The government had become corrupt, Judges were dishonest and justice had become a joke. Extortion, crime and class hatred were visible on every hand. Women were pampered and wore expensive clothing and were described in Amos 4: 1 as 'cows of Basham' because like the 'fattened cows of Basham they would tread on anyone in their way as they sought to gratify their appetites for wealth and pleasure. Abuse of alcohol contributed to crime and indecency. Immorality was rampant and incest was common. Amos 2: 7 tells us that '…a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name.'
Robbery and murder had become commonplace. Most people claimed to be religious, but lived in a way that denied a true experience with God. While attracted to various religious forms, the major religion had become self-worship.
This was a time of relative peace, prosperity and pleasure seeking. However, Sacred history has always shown that when times are good economically, it is not easy to reach the people spiritually. Alternatively, it is recognised in times of trial and turmoil, both on a national and personal level, that people are more open and receptive to the gospel message.
Israel throughout its long history often forgot that it was God's hand guiding their success and it was this success that was to result in the peace they had come to enjoy.
However, every time they forgot, God was to select and send a messenger to them.
Who was God to choose this time?
About twenty km or twelve miles south of Jerusalem on the edge of the Judean Desert lay the little village of Tekoa and it was here that God made His choice (Amos 1: 1). The boy's name was Amos, which meant 'burden bearer', and it is only as we understand something of the ministry to which God was calling him that we see how fitting his name was.
God was not only to choose a shepherd at a time when shepherds were looked down upon, but this young man was also a gatherer of 'sycamore fruit', a dresser of fig trees (Amos 7: 14). He lived on the edge of the desert where the local inhabitants didn't have access to the milk and honey of the land just to the north.
It is interesting to note that the so-called fig of the sycamore tree was to be used by the poorer people as a main staple in their diet. In order to dress it, they had to climb a tree, with a knife in hand, to slit the fig to allow the bitter juice to run out. This cut was designed in such a way that the opening would allow insects to get into the fruit where their maggots would allow it to ferment making it more edible.
Using all of life's experiences, this rustic young man of the desert would have no problem in describing the faults of the people in clear but earthly language. This was to be evidenced throughout his book where we see him witnessing to a people who were lulled into a sense of well-being. He was seen as a 'nobody' in the eyes of the powerful, but God was to use him to bring a message of repentance to His people.
We also need to remember that Amos was a native of Judah and yet God was calling him to prophesy to the northern kingdom of Israel. This, in itself was to create much suspicion about his activities and was to call question on his authority to preach.
Consequently, after giving the warnings of God's impending judgement on the nation, the people were to turn a deaf ear just as they had done to his contemporary, Hosea. With his authority in Israel also being questioned by Jeroboam's chaplain, who was also the Priest at Bethel, Amos was told to go home and prophesy in his own country.
Amos' response to this challenge in Amos 7: 14 was to make clear that he considered himself as '…neither a prophet nor a prophet's son…' but he says '…I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, Go, prophesy to my people Israel…'
Amos admits that he was not descended from a line of prophets or other religious officials. He was not educated in the schools of the prophets that were started by Samuel. He claimed to be nothing more than 'a herdsman and a tender of sycamore fruit'. However, he points out that his right to speak came from the highest authority of all: He says, 'The Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go prophecy to my people Israel.'
The call of Amos shows that one doesn't need to be a recognised professional to have a crucial role in ministry. He was to be a non-professional prophet, untrained by the schools of the day. However, Amos spoke because the Lord had called him to deliver his message of judgement.
This would seem to be one of the clearest statements dealing with the compulsion of the divine call to be found anywhere in the Bible (Lockyer, 1986: 43). Amos was to receive his training as a prophet straight from the hand of God.
As such, we always need to remember that it is the message that makes the messenger and not the other way around. There have been those throughout history who have discovered this certainty to their own eternal loss.
Those who are called and are given the privilege of conveying God's word must always remember that they are nobody without that message.
The authenticity of proclamation does not arise from one's status or qualifications, but from the awesome realisation that 'the Sovereign Lord has spoken' (Amos 3: 8).
Our responsibility is to be so connected with Him that when He calls there is no doubt as to the origin and purpose of the calling. This is what turns a fish catcher into a fisher of men, an arrogant Pharisee into an apostle to the gentile world. This is what turns an unassuming girl into a messenger for the remnant and a shepherd into a fearless prophet. That is the way it was with Amos.
Amos feared the Lord so much that he feared no one else at all.
His unchanging message, that was given 800 years before the time of Jesus, was so far ahead of its time that it has been said that a large part of Christendom have not yet caught up with it (Mears, 1983: 285).
Amos is telling us that 'God is' and that all human relationships and conduct should be governed within the context of His sovereignty, His grace and His judgement. His unchanging message becomes present truth when proclaimed during the times in which the prophets and the hearers live.
The times in which we live are no different from the times in which Amos found himself and the same courage he showed is needed today to have the people return to the law of Jehovah and to keep His statutes. God, today, still places a higher value on justice and righteousness than on silver and gold and all the things that money can buy.
During the time of Amos, while both Judah and Israel were experiencing this exceptional economic boom with most of their enemies defeated, we would have expected that God's people would live in harmony with Him. However, the fruits of prosperity that involved pride, luxury, selfishness and oppression were seen to be ripening plentifully in both these kingdoms. The rich were becoming richer and the poor were becoming poorer leading the nation to be seen as spiritually lethargic and morally bankrupt.
As we have seen, economic prosperity does not guarantee spiritual maturity. It doesn't guarantee moral responsibility, or even social accountability. Sadly, it was to reach the point where the people were not fully aware of the situation they were in.
As a consequence, Amos 6: 12 suggests that Israel, including the King, the priests and the people, failed to deal with sin as sin. They were to turn '…judgement into gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock.' Against the darkness of that failure we find Amos coming in with his unchanging message of truth that says we are all held accountable before an omnipresent God, whose grace and judgement ever border the field of human existence.
Amos reminds them that 'God is' and that He never fails in fulfilling His redemptive and judgmental purposes. In doing this he portrays three pictures of God.
He shows Him as the living Sovereign Lord of the universe. He was not a deity that was carved out of tribal whims and fancies. His sovereignty could not be exchanged for those self-made images of human imagination that had been installed at Bethel and Dan. He is the Lord of all nations and He keeps a watchful eye on them all.
Secondly, he shows God as a personal God who discloses himself and His 'Holy Name' as He acts through the course of history so that His will and purposes may ultimately prevail.
Thirdly, he also shows Him as Holy, righteous and gracious with His righteousness beyond dispute.
Amos begins his discourse in the first part of his book by condemning those nations that surround both Israel and Judah. The nations of Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab were all to come under his biting words of judgement.
The Syrians were guilty of wanton cruelty and this was seen by Amos in Amos 1: 3 by the way they ran studded threshing sledges over the bodies of their captives. The Philistines were guilty of selling their own people into slavery while Tyre and Edom were said to have transgressed the laws of kinship.
Ammon's atrocities were carried out simply to gain more land and Moab, by desecrating corpses was said to have violated one of the most universal of all ancient unwritten laws.
You could imagine that the listening Israelites were only too happy to hear their enemies being condemned, but Amos doesn't stop there. Judah is also condemned for rejecting the law of God and being led astray by false Gods. He tells them that Judgement was to come in the form of fire that would eventually consume the fortresses of Jerusalem (Amos 2: 4,5).
These judgements are now getting uncomfortably close to home for the Israelite people, but nothing could have prepared his listeners for the shocking news they were to hear next. Let's read his words in Amos 2: 6
This is what the Lord says: 'For crime after crime of Israel, I shall grant them no reprieve'. This verse was to show the Israelites that the main purpose of Amos's preaching was to warn them that they too were under the judgement of God.
While the Prophet Hosea was to make plain that Israel's basic sin was turning away from God to worship idols, Amos was to point out the moral and social decline that resulted from it. The people had become so callous in their dealings with others and had gagged God's messengers to such an extent that it had reached the stage where none would escape God's punishment (Alexander, 1999: 491, 493). This reminds us that affluence and comfortable living insulate people from the real issues and breed false security. Self-sufficiency and pride have always been the downfall of human beings right from the very beginning (Ibid: 494).
We need to remember that the nations of this world, no matter how powerful they may be, are not able withstand the judgements of God It is God who sets up kingdoms and brings them down. We see this with the Pharaoh's of ancient Egypt. We see it with Napoleon who thought he could rule the world, but ends up languishing on the Island of St. Helena. We see this with the German Kaiser in World War I and Hitler in World War II, but all these hinderer's of God's ultimate plans were to be laid low (Mears, 1983: 288).
History has always shown that punishment is certain if men continue to reject the repeated warnings of God. While being told that they were greedy, unjust, unclean, and profane, the Israelites defended and excused themselves on the ground that they were God's chosen people. Amos was to remind them that this only made their sin all the greater (Ibid: 289). Privilege brings responsibility and where there is responsibility there is accountability (Wiersbe, 1991: 583).
By famine and drought, blight and disease God had warned them where they were heading, but to no avail.
It is very easy to fall into this same danger today, as there are many who imagine that their salvation is secure by being members of the church. We need to recognise that an 'insurance policy' religion is only a mockery of the real thing.
Before punishment is given, God always offers a way of escape. While God denounces sin, He always offers a remedy. In Amos 5: 1-17 God now calls on His people to save their lives by seeking Him, not through their sacrifices at the nation's corrupt sanctuaries but through reformed living. This was to bring a return to God's standards of justice and right conduct in public as well as in the private life (Alexander, 1999: 493). God says: 'Seek Me and live'.
The people of Amos's day understood that the 'Day of the Lord' always described a time when God would act for them against their enemies, but they were shocked to learn that this time it would be different. On that day Amos tells them that God will act against them.
In Amos 7: 1- 9: 10 Amos shares five visions of God's approaching judgment. After the first two that dealt with locusts and fire, Amos begs God to forgive His people and God, at that time, does relent. However, after the second two He allows no such opportunity. This involved the vision of the 'plumb-line (Amos 7: 7-9) and the basket of fruit (Amos 8: 1-3). We need to recognise that the crooked wall always hates the straight line (Repeat). As such, men were to hate Amos. The vision of the basket of fruit is one that is particularly graphic. Here, Amos describes the Israelite nation as a basket of summer fruit, implying that it would soon spoil and rot in the blistering sun of God's judgment (Lockyer, 1986:44).
However, it is the last vision in Amos 9: 1-6 that gives a terrifying picture of total destruction. This was to be fulfilled thirty years after Jeroboam's death in 722 BC when the mighty Assyrian nation attacked from the north destroying Israel's capital city Samaria and taking the people into exile. Israel ceased to exist.
It would be devastating to think that this was to be the end, but following Amos's messages of judgment we find him finishing on an optimistic note. Amos predicts that Israel would be restored to their special place in God's service after their season of judgement was to come to an end. He points to a glorious future for God's people, even in the midst of dark times. This positive spirit that came from Amos's deep faith in God was able to sustain him through this difficult period and give him hope for the future (Ibid).
It was believed after preaching in Israel, that Amos returned to his home in Tekoa. We know nothing about his later life and death as the Bible remains silent, but his life will continue to serve as an example of courage and faithfulness. We need to remember that while Amos was seen as a non-professional prophet without earthly support and credentials, his right to speak came from the highest authority of all when He says, 'The Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go prophecy to my people Israel.'
The words of this young Prophet still sound down through the years, crying out for justice on behalf of the poor and the helpless of every age and nation and warning that God will judge those in power who continue to oppress them (Alexander, 1991: 490).
However, just as God worked with Amos through this difficult period, He still works today to save His people recognising, that in the light of the cross, it is never too late to respond.
History shows us that God cares about you and He cares about me.
Alexander, P & D (ed) (1999) The New Lion Handbook to the Bible. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing plc.
Lockyer Snr., H. (ed) (1986) Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers
Mears, H. C. (1983) What the Bible is All About. Ventura, California USA: Regal Books
Wiersbe, W. W. (1991) With the Word. Nashville, Tennessee: Oliver-Nelson Books.
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